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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home: The Indigenous Nations, our first inhabitants

(Ojibwe people)

Artistic Expressions

Art Objects and Artifacts

In spite of their seminomadic hunting and fishing subsistence pattern, the Ojibwe developed a wide variety of distinctive art expressions. These clearly distinguish their material culture from that of the Athapaskan tribes to the northwest and, to a lesser extent, from the Algonquian peoples to the east. They make finger-woven bags, create brilliant bead work in both woven and sewn techniques, and in the past used birch bark to fashion canoes and containers for every day use, and also to make unique scrolls on which they engrave songs and prayers for major religious/healing ceremonies.

Everyday objects-Canoes

birchbark canoe
Ojibwe birchbark canoe, circa 1910. Unknown author. Source: Minnesota Historical Center

The Ojibwe use birch bark for many of their everyday objects, and that includes their fishing vessels. These canoes are of an utilitarian nature, but also works of art in themselves. They are lightweight and some have ornate designs on them. Their making is an art that has been passed from generation to generation.

Birchbark canoes are a key part of traditional Ojibwe life. Because they are so lightweight, they can be easily carried across land and easily maneuvered in the water. They were specially suited to the landscape of the Great Lakes and Minnesota regions, with their numerous lakes and rivers. And because the canoes were made of materials readily available in the region's forests, they could be easily repaired if damaged. During the era of French trade, canoes produced were of much greater length than the ones made today, capable of seating large crews of rowers. To learn more about the construction of these canoes, go here.

Canoes were traditionally not only a vehicle for transportation but also a device for gathering food. When they harvest manoomin (wild rice), Ojibwe people use their canoes to catch the rice grains that they knock from the rice plants with special knocking sticks.

These canoes tended to be sunk in lakes over the winter in the past, in order to keep the bark hydrated and pliable. It was lined with clay and then loaded with stones. In the spring, when the ice thawed and open water returned, Ojibwe families could wade out into the lakes to retrieve their canoes for another season.

An important food product for Ojibwe in the early spring was ziinzibaakwad, maple sugar. Some historians speculate that in ancient times, before the arrival of metal kettles as a product of contact with the French, Ojibwe could also use their canoes as devices for catching or combining the sap that would be processed into maple sugar.

Wiigwaasabakoon- Birch bark scrolls

Birch bark scroll
Birch bark scroll image from “The Midewiwin, or 'Grand Medicine Society', of the Ojibwa” in Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Bureau of Ethnology Report.

Other Objects made with birch bark included trays, baskets and other containers that people used in their daily lives, but it was also used to record their traditions, in the form of wiigwaasabakoon (singular- Wiigwaasabak). These are birch bark scrolls, on which the Ojibwe wrote complex geometrical patterns and shapes, and it is considered their written language. When used specifically for Midewiwin ceremonial use, these scrolls are called mide-wiigwaas. These enable the memorization of complex ideas, and passing along history and stories to succeeding generations.

Several such ancient scrolls are in museums, including one on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. In addition to birchbark, copper, and slate may have also been used, along with hides, pottery, and other artifacts. Some archaeologists are presently trying to determine the exact origins, dates, and locations of their use. Many scrolls were hidden away in caves and man-made pits. One of them was returned to its rightful owners in May 2021, and you can read the article about it here.

The bark of the paper birch tree provides an excellent writing material. Usually, a stylus of either bone, metal or wood is used to inscribe these ideographs on the soft inner bark. Black charcoal is often used to fill the scratches to make them easier to see. To form a scroll, pieces of inscribed bark are stitched together using wadab (cedar or spruce roots). To prevent unrolling, the scroll is lashed, then placed in a cylindrically-shaped wiigwaasi-makak (birch bark box) for safe-keeping. Scrolls were recopied after so many years, and stored in dry locations, often underground in special containers, or in caves. Elders recopied the scrolls over time, and some were hidden away in remote areas for safekeeping. Scrolls were often kept hidden to avoid improper interpretations and to avoid ridicule or disrespect of the teachings.

Makuk containers made of birch bark
Makuk containers made of birch bark, Author: Doug Coldwell

The Ojibwa people historically used birch bark to keep records for instructional and guidance purposes. Songs and healing recipes were readable by members of the tribe, either through engraving or with the use of red and blue pigment. Scrolls could contain any number of pictorial representations and they could measure anywhere from centimeters to several meters.

The scrolls and traditions are still alive today, and passed along from generation to generation. The Midewiwin are a traditional group that still keeps the scrolls and their teachings alive. There is some secrecy involved to keep the scrolls safe, to interpret them correctly, and to wait until there is more respect for this ancient language system. Scrolls are passed along and the oral teachings that go with them. Complex stories are represented and memorized with the use of the pictures on the scrolls.

There are many claims made by elders and indigenous teachers that humans have existed in North America before the last ice age, and these ancient ways of writing and other skills and artifacts may provide some clues to the migration patterns and history of the native inhabitants of the continent.

Textile art- Clothing

The ancient Ojibwe people wore breechcloths in the summer, and in cold climates they wore fringed, decorated tunics, high moccasins and leggings and turbans of soft fur. Women wore long dresses with removable sleeves. Men wore breechcloths and leggings. Everybody wore moccasins on their feet and cloaks or ponchos in bad weather. Later, they adapted European costume such as cloth blouses and jackets, decorating them with fancy beadwork. Warm robes or cloaks were also worn to protect against the rain and the cold. Clothes were decorated and colored with red, blue, yellow and green dyes. For many Tribes, their items of clothing have stories that are as unique as their history. They reveal the legacies of ancestors through their creativity, abilities and the resources that were available to them.

Traditionally, they wore leather headbands with feathers standing straight up in the back. In times of war, some men shaved their heads in the Mohawk style, with a single strip of hair standing up high in the middle of the man's head. Otherwise, men and women both wore their hair in long braids. A warrior might wear a porcupine roach, which you can still see today at pow-wows. In the 1800's, some chiefs began wearing long headdresses like their neighbors the Dakota Sioux.

They also painted their faces and arms with bright colors for special occasions and used different patterns for war paint and festive decoration. Some of them, especially men, also wore tribal tattoos.

This George Catlin picture depicts a warrior called Awunnewabe, which means "Bird of Thunder". He is wearing the full regalia of a Plains Indigenous Ojibwe, with a magnificent feather war bonnet- consisting of a long trailer of feathers that was worn as a symbol of honor and accomplishment. These war bonnets were usually made with a band decorated with eagle feathers, ermine fur and beadwork, with feathers trailing to the floor.

In recent times, members of the Ojibwe have started to seek more recognition and have adapted their art to modern materials, while at the same time honoring the traditions their ancestors bestowed on them. Such an example can be seen in this article, where Delina White and her daughters speak about their business- a clothing company that highlights their culture, while showcasing to the world the beautiful craftmanship that these articles of clothing are known for.

Locally, Christy Goulet from Indigenous Legacy teaches several classes that can be found here, on how to make traditional beaded jewelry and other objects. She also teaches the young generation how to make their own Regalia, passing on the tradition in the process.


In some First Nations cultures a dreamcatcher or dream catcher (Ojibwe: asabikeshiinh, the inanimate form of their language's word for 'spider') is a handmade willow hoop, on which is woven a net or web. It may also be decorated with sacred items such as certain feathers or beads. Traditionally, dreamcatchers are hung over a cradle or bed as protection. It originates in Anishinaabe culture as "the spider web charm" (link takes you to the story of the spider woman)– Ojibwe: asubakacin, literally  'net-like' (White Earth Nation); bwaajige ngwaagan, 'dream snare' (Curve Lake First Nation) – a hoop with woven string or sinew meant to replicate a spider's web, used as a protective charm for infants.

While Dreamcatchers continue to be used in a traditional manner in their communities and cultures of origin, a derivative form of "dreamcatchers" were also adopted into the Pan-Indian movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a symbol of unity among the various cultures, or a general symbol of identification with First Nations cultures.

The name "dream catcher" was published in mainstream, non-Native media in the 1970s and became widely known as a "Native crafts item" by the 1980s. By the early 1990s they became "one of the most popular and marketable" ones.

In the course of becoming popular outside the Ojibwe Nation, and then outside the pan-Indian communities, various types of "dreamcatchers", many of which bear little resemblance to traditional styles, and that incorporate materials that would not be traditionally used, are now made, exhibited, and sold by New Age groups and individuals. While some people see this popularization as harmless, many Indigenous communities have come to see these imitation "dreamcatchers" as over-commercialized, offensively misappropriated, and misused by non-Indigenous people.

Christy Goulet teaches a class in Moorhead on how to make your own dreamcatcher using traditional methods here. She also sells her creations in stores in Fargo, and directly to the public.

Next week we'll continue this series with more information on the food, music and dance traditions of the Ojibwe or Chippewa.

Stay tuned for more information on more cultures in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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